*Check out my book review of The Goldfinch on Burlesque Press!*
A few days ago, Paul and I were standing in a small, mom-and-pop store in Long Beach, Washington, and Paul was ordering a turkey sandwich. “What comes on it?” he asked the owner.
“Oh, just lettuce and tomato,” Pop said. He was a thin, white-haired man drinking from a Styrofoam cup of coffee while his wife went to the back to make the sandwich.
“OK,” Paul said. “As long as it doesn’t have mayonnaise on it.”
“Well, now, the egg salad already has quite a bit of mayonnaise in it, so you probably won’t need any more.”
“He ordered turkey.” I tried to sound friendly, but I had a suspicious feeling that something was going to go wrong with Paul’s sandwich. Both Mom and Pop seemed a little out of it.
“Yeah, I ordered turkey. Lettuce and tomato is fine, but no mayonnaise,” Paul reiterated.
“Oh.” Pop sounded surprised. “You know it’s turkey, right?” He called back to his wife.
“No mayonnaise!” I felt like shouting. I could tell that these were people who wouldn’t understand eating a sandwich without mayonnaise.
When we left the store, Paul opened the cellophane of his sandwich: turkey, lettuce, tomato. And, of course, both pieces of white bread were slathered thickly with mayo.
Paul sighed. “I guess I’ll just eat the meat.”
“No!” I said. “You told them no mayonnaise. They didn’t listen to you. It’s their fault. Let’s take it back.” So we did.
“No mayonnaise?” Pop asked, surprised. “You want me to butter the bread or something?”
“No, no,” I told him. “Just lettuce and tomato is fine.” It was unclear whether his hearing was bad, or just his understanding.
That day I was feeling especially passionate about good listening skills because in the car on the way to Long Beach I had been reading out loud from Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk.
“OK, let’s practice,” I said to Paul. I put on my best little kid voice: “I’d like to punch that Michael in the nose!”
“Why do you feel that way?” Paul asked gently.
“No.” I snapped back to my regular voice. “You’re not supposed to say that.”
“Because asking questions might make the kid more agitated or defensive. Plus they might not know why they feel that way, so you asking is going to frustrate them. Little kids don’t always understand their feelings, and it’s your job to help them try to understand.”
“What am I supposed to say, then?”
“You acknowledge what they said and give them a name for their feelings. You say something like, ‘gosh, you sound really angry.’”
“Hmm,” Paul said.
“It says ‘hmm’ is a good response, too.” The main thing about good listening is to talk as little as possible.
The thing is, kids aren’t the only ones who don’t understand their feelings. My friends and I joke that grown men can’t put names to their emotions: “I’m feeling a feeling” is sometimes the best they can do.
But it’s not just men. During our weekend in Long Beach, I realized that I have trouble understanding my feelings, too.
“Sometimes I wish you would tell me what you’re thinking,” Paul told me one night. “It drives me crazy when I can tell you’re upset but you don’t say anything. I wish you would just tell me what you want.”
“I guess I’m not used to sharing my feelings with someone.” I had been single for nearly a decade when I met Paul. When I’m sad or frustrated, I still try to fix things on my own. I think what can I do differently, instead of what we can do. I’m not used to involving someone else in my inner life.
But, I realized, that’s not the only reason I wasn’t sharing my feelings with Paul. “I guess sometimes I can’t articulate what I’m feeling,” I said. “I don’t tell you what I want because I’m not sure myself.”
People say that communication is the most important part of a relationship. But before you can communicate your feelings to a partner, you have to figure them out for yourself. And that can be the hardest part.
On our last night in Long Beach, Paul and I watched some episodes of Girls. Paul cringed at the awkward scenes, but mostly he got into the crazy drama of it all.
“Do you think Shoshanna and Ray are good for each other?” he asked me the next day. And then, later, “do you think that Marnie really was being a bad friend?”
That night he woke from a dream and sat up in bed. “I was dreaming about Girls,” he said. “I dreamed that I could solve all of their relationship problems with a four-by-four matrix.”
“Good job, babe,” I said groggily before falling back asleep.
Oh, if only it were that easy. If only we could improve our relationships with simple math. But we probably can’t. Instead we have to figure out what it is that we feel and then figure out how to say it with words that are helpful, not hurtful. We have to talk so others will listen and listen so others will talk.
And when someone doesn’t listen, we have to speak up, and let them know that they didn’t hear us: I said I don’t want mayonnaise!
All of this is hard. It’s really hard. But then I remember, if I’m having trouble saying it, I can always write it down. For me, writing often comes more naturally than conversation. Writing is how I figure out what I’m feeling in the first place. Maybe Paul figures out his feelings with math. Everyone has their own way, I suppose. The important thing is to listen when someone has figured out what it is they want to say.
A Mathematician’s Dream (by Eva Langston)
We create equations for new snuggles:
Combinations of arms and legs at varying degrees.
Puzzle-piece body parts like tessellations,
The geometry of clouds and coastlines and trees.
In the night he assumes position fifty-two,
I comply with corresponding coordinates:
Right hand to left thigh, left arm around his chest,
In a dreamy game of Twister, skin-on-skin sweats.
Morning comes and communication falters–
He speaks BASIC, and I, binary code.
He waits for commands, his cursor blinking,
But what I want, I don’t always know.
One night he wakes from a dream – “Babe,”
“I solved our problems with a simple matrix!”
He multiplied, found the determinant, solved.
With logic our relationship was fixed.
It was only a dream, of course, in real life
Our matrices would be more complex.
With infinite solutions, or none at all.
Math describes everything but love and sex.